Emotional Contagion

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What is Emotional Contagion?

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon by which individuals can “catch” the emotions of others, either through direct interaction or even through observation. It is the idea that emotions can be transmitted from one person to another, much like a contagious virus. This concept suggests that we are influenced by the emotions and moods of those around us, and can in turn influence others with our own emotions.

Key Definition:

Emotional contagion is an individuals tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements of another person’s, and consequently, to experience similar emotions.

How We Transmit Emotions

Research has shown that emotional contagion can occur through various means, including facial expressions, body language, vocal tone, and even through written words. In 1759, Adam Smith suggested that we display ‘motor mimicry’ during interpersonal interactions (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). Basically, when two people are interacting, they automatically begin to express mimicry in expression across a variety of modalities. Much of the emotional contagion literature suggests that this mimicry is automatic and unlearned.

During interactions, we non-consciously and automatically mimic fleeting expressions. We absorb the momentary emotions expressed through slight motor movements of facial muscles and body language and mimic these expressions, creating synchrony. According to emotional contagion theorists, the synchrony and mimicry of expression gives rise to similar emotions.

Two-Step Process

Basically, emotional contagion occurs through a two-step process:

  1. First, there is an observation and mimicry of expression (facial expression, body language, vocal tone, etc..).
  2. Second, by expressing the emotion, we also automatically experience similar affect.

The expression of emotion elicits emotion through a process we refer to as afferent feedback. Basically, our bodily expressions provide feedback to the brain. We smile and subsequently we feel happy.

However, some literature suggests that we may experience physical arousal (feeling affect) in response to observed emotions first then naturally mimic the expressions because we are already experiencing the emotion.

Later research suggests even a more complex processing occurring to produce the emotional contagion. Some evidence implies that the synchrony of emotion may also include social appraisal (Wróbel & Imbir, 2019). This means that we observe social surroundings, including the expressions of emotions by others, and respond to the entirety of the situations. For example, while on an airplane during heavy turbulence, the turbulence along with the fear of fellow travelers combine to create our feeling affects. Accordingly, if we commonly travel the turbulence alone might not produce the same anxiety as turbulence and a plane full of terrified passengers.

Another example may be a comedian is more likely to make us laugh when those around us are laughing.

Which Way Does Emotional Contagion Flow?

Since there is a synchrony of emotions, the end state suggests that two people in an interpersonal conversation eventually experience the same emotion. However, whose emotional state is adopted. Daniel Goleman suggests that “when two people interact, the direction of mood transfer is from the one who is more forceful in expressing feelings to the one who is more passive” (2005).

The more salient expressions are more likely to be transferred. Carolina Herrando and Efthymios Constantinedes wrote, “when someone smiles at us, the natural reaction is to smile back in order to align with the emotion of the other person” (2021).

Another contributing factor to the direction of emotional flow is individual sensitivity to emotion. Those more sensitive to emotion are more likely to absorb slight micro-expressions, picking up on buried underlying moods. Goleman explains that some people are “particularly susceptible to emotional contagion; their innate sensitivity makes their autonomic nervous system (a marker of emotional activity) more easily triggered” (2005, Kindle location: 2,446). 

Intimate Relationships and Emotional Contagion

While emotional contagion is applicable to all relationships, it is most impactful to our dearest and most intimate relationships. The process of emotional contagion, two people responding with similar emotions, creates connections, and is an outward expression of emotional attunement.

Relationships that are most important to us naturally contain enhanced vulnerability. Because of this, our wellness thrives on security in these connections. We more intently “scan our partner’s faces for second-by-second information” (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapsom, 1992, p. 157). Detecting underlying emotions is essential for reassurance in the direction and stability of the relationship.

Synchrony of emotions generates feelings of closeness. Synchrony is a characteristic of emotional intimacy. In contrast, Hatfield explains, “desynchrony may be quite disruptive to responsive social exchanges…thereby foster miscommunication and conflict” (1992, p. 157).

In close relationships, we become accustomed to each other’s emotional responses to events. Communication follows certain emotional patterns, allowing for the security of predictability. Intimate couples naturally experience emotions together and dyadically regulate those emotions, leaning on shared resources.

Desynchrony, on the other hand, is disruptive to the relationship. It shows lack of connection and enhances fears of abandonment. Instead of connection, there is disconnection. Often, we protect against the constant fear of unknown emotions raging in the heart of a lover that we detach from the emotions of connection altogether.

Emotional Contagion and Empathy

Many theorists suggest that emotional synchrony and emotional contagion are associated with empathy and sympathy. Perhaps, also connected to the concept of theory of mind. Robert Sapolsky suggests that “mimicry and emotional contagion are baby steps’ towards empathy. He continues “a developmental landmark is attaining Theory of Mind, something necessary but not sufficient for empathy, which paves the way for increasing abstraction” (Sapolsky, 2018).

Emotional contagion has significant implications for both personal and social interactions. It not only affects our own well-being and mood, but also the overall emotional climate of a group or community. For instance, if a leader displays enthusiasm and optimism, it can have a contagious effect on the team, fostering a positive and productive environment. On the other hand, if negative emotions are prevalent, it can lead to increased stress, conflict, and decreased overall morale.

It is important to be aware of the power of emotional contagion in our daily lives. By understanding how emotions can spread from person to person, we can better navigate our interactions and strive to create a positive emotional environment.

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Czarna, A., Wróbel, M., Dufner, M., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2015). Narcissism and Emotional Contagion. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 318-324. DOI: 10.1177/1948550614559652

Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books. Read on Kindle Books.

Hatfield, Elaine; Cacioppo, John; Rapson, Richard L. (1993). Emotional Contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(3), 96-100. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770953

Hatfield, Elaine & Cacioppo, John & Rapson, Richard. (1992). Primitive Emotional Contagion. Editor Margaret S Clark. In book: Emotion and social behavior (pp.151-177). Sage Publications.

Herrando, Carolin; Constantinides, Efthymios (2021). Emotional Contagion: A Brief Overview and Future Directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 1. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.712606

Wróbel, M., & Imbir, K. (2019). Broadening the Perspective on Emotional Contagion and Emotional Mimicry: The Correction Hypothesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 437-451. DOI: 10.1177/1745691618808523

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